Inspired by a debate with my friends over whether the casting of the mighty Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan (oh noez spoiler!) in Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second Star Trek Reboot movie, constituted whitewashing (since the character was originally played by a person of color back in the original series in the 1960s and this was an important TV moment in American history), I decided it would be a good idea to educate myself by watching Star Trek. All 30 seasons of it. I started from the very beginning of the original series (TOS), watched the movies starring the original cast, and have now made it up to the seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), with plans to watch the TNG cast movies as well as Deep Space Nine, Voyager and yes, even Enterprise. Thank God for that lethal combination of Netflix streaming and insomnia.
I have become a bit of a Trekkie in the process. (I just bought a TOS science officer shirt from an online costume shop – the light blue one with the black neckline and the gold stripes and the embroidered emblem. Not to wear as a costume. To wear out of the house. In semi-ironic combination with some of my fierce designer pieces, but still. That’s dedication.) Though I adore science fiction I have not become a Trekkie because I love faux science jargon or ray guns or funny looking aliens. I also have not become a Trekkie just because I now realize that Star Trek, including TNG from what I’ve seen, has essentially formed the bedrock foundation for all American sci-fi to follow – particularly the Stargate Franchise, which steals plot lines directly from TOS and TNG and doesn’t even bother to mask them. Nor have I become a Trekkie because watching it has dramatically improved my understanding of The Big Bang Theory – even though I now know who Wil Wheaton is and why that’s funny.
Star Trek has important cultural and historical value. Any student of the humanities, of American history, of sociology, philosophy, political science, civics or law would do well to watch this show. The production quality of the original series is poor. The writing is often weak. Some of the episodes may actually make you a little stupider for having watched them. In a vacuum much of it really isn’t that great. It is campy, corny, hokey and sometimes downright goofy. But Star Trek, a franchise that originated barely after Brown v. Board, depicts a future in which we are at peace with every other nation on Earth, including Russia, in which humanity has stopped being aggressive and explores space on a mission of peace, in which we have dedicated ourselves to pursuing truth and scientific knowledge, a future in which racial and gender discrimination are completely nonexistent.
It’s a positive future – one in which we have overcome global warming, ended rampant illness and starvation, and have excelled and moved into the stars. Even actors affiliated with the show(s) are now vocal advocates for important progressive issues like gay rights and an end to violence against women. And for all of the silly episodes that fall flat, every few episodes there is one that will blow your mind, causing you to question what it really means to be human, posing difficult ethical questions and depicting situations in which characters make hard and sometimes counterintuitive or painful choices based on moral reasoning. Sometimes dripping with obvious allegory, and sometimes much more subtle, Star Trek manifests true American values – not silly pundit American values that are easy to spout on about but tougher ones, the ones that make democracy a responsibility more than a privilege, the kinds of stuff the founders used to opine about in academic papers.
Which is why it drives me absolutely bonkers whenever I see an episode of Star Trek that takes a step backwards.
TNG Season 7 episode 2, Liaisons is one such episode. This is a filler episode for sure. A fluffy one-shot meant to take up space between more meaningful episodes. It follows the end of a painful two-part season finale cliffhanger/season premier resolution which I am unsure whether to love or to hate, but that at the very least took a lot of thought and asks a lot of questions. The plot of Liaisons, and I don’t feel bad that I am about to spoil this for you because it’s not a very good episode, is as follows:
Three ambassadors from a planet that knows very little about humans are supposed to meet up with three of the central characters from the Enterprise and partner off to go learn about each other.’s societies Two come to the ship. One pairs off with Counselor Troi and seems more fixated on eating and playing games than doing any actual diplomatic or cultural work. One pairs off with Lieutenant Worf and is rude and antagonistic the entire time. Meanwhile, Captain Picard leaves the ship to rendezvous with the third ambassador on the other planet in a craft shuttled by a member of this other species. The shuttle crashes on a seemingly abandoned planet and Picard wakes up to find he has been rescued by a human female who had crashed there 7 years earlier. She tells him the shuttle pilot is dead and the shuttle is damaged and there is no way to get home. She also tells Picard that his ribs are broken and that she has placed a device on him to help him heal, and he finds it very difficult to move so she cares for him.
The woman quickly starts to seem like a crazy jealous lover, telling Picard she loves him even though they just met, insisting that he never try to leave, begging him to love her. Picard, being the upstanding gentleman and noble citizen that he is, tries to be kind but firm in telling her that he doesn’t know her well enough and she’s rushing things, but he’s going to get them both off the planet and will make sure she’s taken care of so she doesn’t need to worry. Of course she is displeased with this and gets even crazier. Picard then starts to realize that she has been lying to him, that the shuttle isn’t as damaged as she said it was, that he wasn’t that badly injured and that the device she put on him was actually what was immobilizing him. She freaks out. Picard ends up on the ground, she jumps on top of him, begging him to love her, kissing him as he repeatedly shouts “No.” It takes several seconds and several nonconsensual kisses for him to get her off of him, and it’s a struggle for him to do so.
She then rushes off into the dark wild night, leaving behind a necklace that broke and fell off during the struggle. Just after the woman leaves, the shuttle pilot, miraculously alive, comes to Picard. The pilot tells him that the he saw the woman run off towards a cliff and shows concern that she might harm herself, so Picard goes after her, leaving the pilot behind.
Meanwhile, on the ship, Troi and Worf are dismayed by the behavior of their respective ambassadors. Worf actually comes to blows with his, and just after Worf knocks the wind out of him the ambassador acts pleased and thanks him for the experience. We eventually learn that the ambassadors had come to experience certain elements of human life that were confusing to them, namely pleasure, aggression and love.
Back on the planet Picard encounters the woman on the cliff and realizes she’s wearing the very same necklace that she had left behind earlier, which is impossible. He realizes she’s manipulating him and that she’s not actually going to jump. Finally she stops begging him to love her and transforms into – aha! – the shuttle pilot. As it turns out the shuttle pilot wasn’t just there to pilot Picard back to the aliens’ home planet. He was actually the ambassador there to experience love, and he realizes he failed.
Picard’s reaction is basically the wordy, philosophical equivalent of, “haha, touche!” and they go back to the Enterprise, and everyone is well and the ambassadors leave feeling as though they now have a better understanding of humanity. Picard even says to his ambassador as he is disembarking the shuttle in the Enterprise shuttle bay that humans tend to take a more balanced approach, and he admires the dedicated, intense, hands-on approach that the ambassadors employed, that the ambassadors were willing to push the situation to the extremes.
So let’s get this straight. Some alien, wanting to understand human relationships, poses as a woman and essentially corners Picard on the ground, repeatedly kissing him even after Picard repeatedly tells him no, and then tries to manipulate him with a suicide threat to force him to accept a relationship, and Picard admires this approach to learning.
I will give Star Trek kudos for Picard apparently not caring at all when he discovers this person who had been kissing him was a male (granted, this species apparently has asexual mating habits and may be androgynous, but the ambassador is obviously played by a human male and would likely appear as very male to Picard). But this type of thing was already covered much more effectively and much more beautifully in an earlier episode, The Outcast, which I think may be one of the greatest television episodes I have ever seen of any show ever. I won’t spoil The Outcast because, in my opinion, it’s required viewing. In the early 1990s, mind you, it turns privilege on its head to try to demonstrate to straight cis people through allegory what it feels like to be GLBT. After watching that it seems to me that any thoughtfulness Liaisons demonstrated about GLBT issues must have been tangential, at best.
Unless you read Picard’s statement as he disembarks the shuttle as a hint that he and the ambassador may have gotten busy, and that when he’s talking about dedication and pushing it to extremes he isn’t talking about what happened on the planet prior to the ambassador’s admission that he was the woman all along but about what may have happened between them after. Otherwise why wait until they’re getting out of the shuttle to discuss it, and not just have Picard say it earlier on the planet when he discovers what’s going on? This occurred to me as I was watching, and after a second or two I shook my head, “naaah.” But I’m just throwing out there that it’s a possible read, particularly after The Outcast. Keeping in mind that TNG aired during and just after the Reagan era I don’t think they would ever have made something like that overt even if that’s what they were consciously trying to imply.
But assuming you don’t read it that way, and there’s certainly no clear indication that that’s actually what happened, then Picard is basically saying that he admired the ambassador’s approach even thought that approach basically deprived Picard of his sexual autonomy and his right to say no. And a progressive, thoughtful show like Star Trek should know better than that.
It would have been one thing for Picard to forgive the ambassador for doing something that he still viewed as bad. After all, this is an alien species that doesn’t understand love, sex or relationships and they might have no concept of how this behavior constituted sexual assault or how violative sexual assault is. Picard, and all the characters on TNG, are generally very accepting of alien cultures and very patient with people who don’t understand human ways, and I think that’s a really good thing. If Picard had patiently explained to the ambassador that this approach wasn’t OK and why in a non-judgmental, forgiving way I could dig it.
I guarantee you if it had been Counselor Deana Troi or Dr. Beverly Crusher rather than Captain Picard, and the alien had posed as a human man and tried this with one of them, that sexual assault scene would have read to the whole wide world as a rape attempt, including the characters inside the show, and it would have led to a diplomatic conundrum for the crew of the Enterprise: Accept that this is an alien culture and that the ambassador didn’t know any better but fail to do justice by the victim, or hold the ambassador responsible and try him for a crime at the expense of diplomatic relations and prosecuting a being who didn’t realize he was doing harm. And THAT could have been an amazing, powerful episode that deals with extremely difficult issues.
I have to wonder whether this was even considered, whether the choice to make it Picard who was assaulted on that planet was a deliberate attempt to avoid the problems that would have inevitably arisen had it been Troi or Crusher instead, or whether they envisioned this happening to Picard from the beginning and never really gave this any thought. In any case, they missed a potential teaching moment and simultaneously reinforced two harmful cultural misconceptions that persist even decades after the episode aired:
1) that men can never truly be victims of sexual assault either because women are incapable or because men always want sex (to say nothing of same-sex sexual assault, which is a genuine issue) and 2) that it is appropriate for victims to just accept what has happened to them and be forgiving of this kind of behavior, rather than to hold the perpetrator responsible for his/her actions.
This episode was very unfortunate.
And I haven’t even ranted about how pissed and disappointed I am with Data after what happened in the previous two episodes, but I might actually need to start a Star Trek blog for that.